It was a joy to be with the good people of St. John’s Lutheran in Columbus, Nebraska. Thank you to Pastor Dave Hall for the invitation, and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. I was invited to share in their three-week series on stewardship and the Gifts of the Magi, with my focus being on the stewardship of finances and possessions. The readings for the theme chosen were: Malachi 3:1-18, 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, and the Gospel of Matthew 6:24-34. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from and/or if you prefer, a video of the sermon as shared via Facebook Live on the congregation’s Facebook page.
Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with us, Emmanuel, and who is for us, and loves us. Amen.
Good morning St. John’s. It’s great to be with you today. Thank you so much Pastor Dave for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings this morning from Bishop Brian Maas, your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Focken, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I’m grateful to be with you as part of your three-week stewardship focus on “The Three Gifts” of the Magi, and to dig into today’s stories and listen for what God might be calling us to hear, and see and share some gratitude with all of you for your continued stewardship and discipleship.
Digging into Today’s Stories
Today’s stories are all about God’s work and promises and our response. But within them there is also great wisdom about finances and possessions, how we manage or steward them, and how they are entrusted to us by God. There’s an underlying warning too though about what can happen when we lose sight of God being the one who entrusts to us all that we have and all that we are. There’s a warning here when we miss the psalmist’s declaration in Psalm 24, that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it, for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” When we forget this, or misunderstand God’s act of entrusting, or start to think it’s all about us and “our stuff,” our possessions and finances can take a higher priority in our life, and they can so easily get in the way of our relationship with God.
The Sermon on the Mount- on faith and possessions
We find ourselves in the gospel story this week during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He’s shared his famous Beatitudes and wisdom on all sorts of topics, and in this discourse, he zeroes in on faith and possessions. He starts with a bang. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” This is not to say that wealth is bad, but it’s a warning. If things are not in right order, and wealth is an end in and of itself, then we have missed the boat. Wealth, our possessions and stuff are no longer somethings that have been entrusted to us by God, but have become a god in and of itself. It becomes more about getting more and not having enough.
It becomes about us turned inwardly, and not us collectively together as God’s people. Turned outwardly for the sake of the world that God so dearly loves that God breaks into the world in the incarnation and walks with us, Emmanuel; as we remember, celebrate, and wrestle with the hope and trust in God’s promises this Advent season.
Jesus is calling us to wake up and see in this sermon. He’s telling us to not focus just on ourselves- on our lives, on what we will eat or drink, what we will wear… It’s important to care for ourselves because all that we are is God’s. But when we focus on ourselves, just because it’s all about us, well that’s vanity. Its sin. And it’s missing the point. Because God is with us, and provides for us. And together with God, with all that God entrusts, we have enough. There is abundance to share. The problems come when we turn inward, and don’t share, but hoard. Then the provision God provides for all, is not provided for all, because we, get in the way.
The Kingdom of God- we’re all called to participate in
You see, the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God is one in which God is present and at work. But it’s also one that is now and not yet, breaking into the world. It’s one we’re all invited into, and invited to share in. And it’s one that God chooses even to do some of its work and preparation for, through us. Instead of worrying about ourselves and the vanities of life, strive for the greater good. Jesus says, “strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
These words have taken on new meaning this year for me. You may not know this, but my wife Allison, pastor at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle and myself, are living life learning each day what it means to be the parents of a toddler, as our beautiful daughter Caroline just turned 20 months old this week. And with that it means she is getting into everything. She can climb up on all kinds of furniture. She can reach anything, child-proofing is really kind of useless at this point. We just put up our tree. We’re learning what ornaments need to go up higher. But even with that curiosity, what gets me is that God is up to something amazing. In her eyes as Caroline sees the lights on the tree, there is a genuine wonder. She said, “Wow” at least twenty times in the first day of seeing the tree full of ornaments.
Wow is a great word. But it’s only a word that we say, when we take the time to make space to see and witness that God is active and in the midst. When we take this time, we’re present. And perhaps able to witness to God’s activity. When we’re not so present, we can turn inward.
We can get so caught up in the worries of our own lives that we miss God’s activity right around us, in us, among us, and through us. We can miss out on what God is up to, for us. Like the Herod’s of this world- we can cling to power and wealth, to the allure of gold, and miss the beautiful creation all around us and our sisters and brothers in need among us.
We all have gifts to share. We all have resources to offer. These gifts and resources aren’t meant just for ourselves. They are meant for the world.
We’re called to give- as Malachi reminds
The prophet Malachi offers insight on this. In his words about God sending his messenger, perhaps a timely Advent proclamation itself, and in the close of the minor prophets and the end of the Old Testament, Malachi points to tithing. What is it and why do we do it? Because God calls us to provide an offering, but it is also a return of the first fruits which God has entrusted like Moses recalls in Deuteronomy 26. We return to God, a portion of what God has entrusted. We’re basically giving back to God some of God’s stuff. When we withhold them, we are in fact robbing God as Malachi warns. “Will anyone rob God? You are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings!’” He goes on saying, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house…” To bring the full tithe, means to joyfully respond to God’s work by returning our offering, but also in joining in God’s work.
Malachi is coming off rather strong here against the people. But even with righteous anger, God still leaves room for grace. The words from Malachi close with this, that “The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.” He’s pointing to the difference between a disciple and steward and those who are not. Between a Child of God who has not only been washed in the baptismal waters but leans into them and lives with them, growing throughout life because of them. He’s pointing to the distinction “between one who serves God and one who does not serve” God. One who is again as Jesus warned turned inward toward themselves, instead of outwards.
Abundance- resting and living in God’s abundance- as 2 Corinthians 9 argues
We turn outward as Jesus calls us to, to “strive first for the kingdom of God.” We do so because in remembering and knowing that God is an abundant God and we are wrapped in that abundance, it carries with it the responsibility of sharing. There is enough. And the Apostle Paul makes this clear in his second letter to the Corinthians, appealing for their financial support to further the work and ministry of the gospel.
Paul writes that, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
This abundance is not new. God has been about the work of abundance since the beginning of creation and the acts in the garden. God has been about abundance when providing the manna in the wilderness for the people as they journeyed those forty years waiting for the promised land. God has promised abundance and abundant life through the one who was to come, the Messiah and Savior. And has fulfilled that promise through God in Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, for us.
Joyful Response with the Magi this Advent Season
Though the Magi couldn’t have known what all was to come, they could see that something amazing was happening. And so, they come bringing gifts. They bring their frankincense and myrrh, their worship and their time and talents. And they bring their gold. They do so not just for Jesus’ sake and to honor him, but also to show a small sign of gratitude and joy that can be used to help bring about whatever it is that God is up to. They come with an offering, even if they themselves do not yet understand or even recognize that it is God coming into the world in their midst.
In traveling from a far-off land, following that star, coming to bear witness, the Magi are demonstrating their joyful response to all that God has done, is doing, and will do. And we do this too by living and serving in our lives as stewards and disciples. We do so by giving, generously, gratefully, and joyfully. Yes, giving is a joyful thing. And we do so, because we know who our God is- generous and abundant; present and loving; forgiving and life giving.
Today you are all invited to provide before God your giving commitment for the upcoming year. This is something that it is not to be taken lightly. It’s a deeply spiritual act. It’s not one where the church uses it to form a budget, no, it’s rather a conversation. For you and all the members of your family and household to engage in together.
What will you be able to return to God in the year ahead? How has God’s grace and love so deeply impacted you, that you can’t help but want to give back and be part of God’s work in the world in some way? These are the questions that I invite you to deeply consider as you pray and commit.
There’s no right amount. And I know that life is hard, and that budgets can be tight. But I also know, that once you give, it’s hard to stop. Because you start to feel something deep within. There’s a change that happens. And when you see the impact that your giving has, the lives that are changed through you, in some small way, well… it doesn’t take much effort to imagine the joy, hope, and wonder that are so longed for and present in this season of the year.
Gratitude for You
I know you understand this friends. And I am grateful for you, for being the stewards and disciples you are. One of my greatest joys in my call as your partner in ministry as the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, is being able to remind congregations of all that they are already doing, and to say thank you. So, please hear my thanks for each and every one of you.
Especially, thank you St. John for your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share is your undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA through which you do ministry that spans the globe, and changes lives.
Through it, you help raise up new leaders, pastors, and deacons of our church. Through it, you help share the Good News that God is with us and comes near to us through supporting and sending missionaries around the globe, and new and renewing ministries right here at home all across the Big Red State. Through it, you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them in part through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling, and Lutheran Campus Ministry. And through mission share, you see your neighbors and join them, accompanying them on the way and sharing in God’s abundance through supporting the church’s many serving arm partners for ministry like Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran World Relief, and Mosaic among many others.
There’s so much that you do and that you are a part of. On behalf of your sisters and brothers around Nebraska and the whole globe, again, thank you!
Putting it all Together
There are plenty of worries in our world and in our lives. Jesus knows this. God knows this. There’s plenty of concerns this time of year about money and finances to go around. But these worries are often so amplified and magnified because we forget the truth and promises that hold us. We lose sight of the fact that in this Advent season, we remember that God is with us, Emmanuel. When we remember this, we breathe. We pause. We wonder, we wait and watch. We celebrate and give thanks.
We come and worship like the Magi, offering all that we have and all that we are. Because when you get down to it, it’s all God’s anyway. And that is a great relief and joy. Yes, there is plenty of responsibility in the life of being a steward and disciple. But there’s also tons of joy and great meaning and purpose that fills us, and makes all the challenges worth it. Because whether it’s a good day or not, God is with us. Always. And today’s worries are enough for today, because God provides abundantly, is with you, for you, and loves you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Citations and References:
 Psalm 24:1-2, NRSV.
 Matthew 6:24, NRSV.
 J. Andrew Overman on Matthew 6:22-24: “Undue focus on possessions can distort judgment,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Michael D. Coogan, ed., (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 16 New Testament.
 Matthew 6:25, NRSV.
 Matthew 6:32-34, NRSV.
 Malachi 3:1.
 Deuteronomy 26:1-11.
 Malachi 3:7-8, NRSV.
 Malachi 3:10, NRSV.
 Malachi 3:16-17, NRSV.
 Malachi 3:18, NRSV.
 Matthew 6:32, NRSV.
 Sze-kar Wan in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael D. Coogan, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 303 New Testament.
 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, NRSV.